Sickle Cell Disease Basics

What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited blood disorder that is characterized by the production of abnormal hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the tissues. This disease causes red blood cells to become "sickled" or C-shaped. We help manage sickle cell disease in our Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program.

What is a sickle cell?

Sickled red blood cells are stiff and sticky and can clump together in blood cells and block blood flow. This means that oxygen is not being delivered properly to different body parts, causing pain and other serious complications. Normal blood cells are round and flexible, making it easy for them to travel through blood vessels to deliver oxygen to all parts of the body. Normal red blood cells live for about 120 days while sickled cells only live 10-20 days.

How is sickle cell disease diagnosed?

Sickle cell disease is most often diagnosed through newborn screening. Early diagnosis is important because young children with sickle cell disease are at an increased risk of infection and other complications.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, sickle cell disease occurs in 1 of every 365 Black or African-American births. SCD typically affects people of African Caribbean descent, but it also may be found in people from the Middle East, India, Latin America or the Mediterranean.

Sickle Cell Disease Treatment

Currently, a stem cell transplant (SCT) is the only available cure for SCD that must be approved by a medical team. In addition, the advancements in medicine have led to improved quality of life and extended life expectancy.

Some children with SCD need blood transfusions to prevent complications. The Sickle Cell Donor Program was started by Lurie Children's and The American Red Cross to ensure that patients receive transfused blood that is closely matched to their own blood.

How to Support Someone with Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle cell disease affects approximately 100,000 individuals in the US and the pain symptoms and complications can make daily life challenging. Here are some ways to help and support someone you love living with SCD:

  1. Encourage healthy habits: Everyday activities that contribute to overall well-being, such as getting good sleep and eating a balanced diet, can help improve their daily life. Take into consideration that individuals with SCD may need accommodations during extreme temperatures/conditions and during physical activities. Ensure they drink enough water to stay hydrated and can easily access restrooms for frequent bathroom breaks.
  2. Create a strong social support system. Individuals with SCD can experience various complications that might affect their daily lifestyle. Find healthy ways to emotionally support a person with SCD, whether it's encouraging professional help when needed or creating a strong social group presence so they feel cared for and safe.
  3. Help increase awareness of sickle cell disease. September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month, but you can do your part to support people with SCD all year round. Start a fundraiser, volunteer or make a donation to support researchers and healthcare providers better understand this disorder. Children with SCD often need blood tranfusions, so consider donating blood if you are eligible!

Learn more about our Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program.

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